The 2016 digging season got off to a chilly but eventful start with a very successful two week spring excavation at All Saints, North Street. Thankfully, we wouldn’t have to wait until June to get back on site, as a pair of weekend digs kept the site ticking over nicely.
Redoubtable Archaeology Live! regulars Sue and Gill made a welcome return to All Saints for the weekend and took over the excavation of an intriguing but challenging burial. Over the spring excavation, it had become apparent that an existing burial had been re-opened to lay an infant to rest. This has been a recurring theme across the site, with numerous graves containing multiple individuals stacked one atop the other. As work progressed, it became clear that the additional burial had caused some damage to a second infant burial that was already present. With both infants already having been recorded and lifted, Sue and Gill’s first task was to reveal the remains of the third individual within the grave.
As has been the case in many such burials, this was not a straightforward process. Sue and Gill’s careful troweling slowly revealed the remains of an adult individual directly below the second infant, presumably the two were related as they were laid to rest on the same day between 1826 and 1854.
By the end of the weekend, the upper half of an adult had been fully exposed, with the lower half hidden below a wall footing of the 1860 church hall. Curiously, the left arm was never found as it had fallen into an underlying void from a collapsed coffin – clear evidence that the remains of at least one further individual are present below.
Intrusive later burials and collapse into earlier graves beneath their inhumation made this burial a tricky one for Gill and Sue, but they did an excellent job and created a full single context record of their coffin and skeleton before re-covering the remains with an appropriate amount of care and respect.
The April weekend dig was Keith’s first ever excavation and he too faced the challenging task of working on a 19th century inhumation. The knees of this adult individual had been exposed in a small slot dug between infant burials back in the 2015 season and the evidence seemed to suggest that the person had been buried face-down, an unusual occurrence.
With the overlying infant burials now lifted and re-interred within the church, Keith was able to reveal the entire burial and get to the bottom of this mystery.
After recording a well-preserved coffin, Keith began the delicate work of excavating within the coffin to reveal the skeleton. Despite being a beginner, he proved to be an assured troweller and discovered that the results of the previous slot had been misleading.
Revealing the whole of the inhumation proved that it had not been buried face down at all. It was now clear that, once the soft tissues of the individual had decayed, the femurs (thigh bones) were no longer held in place and had rolled over.
This suggests that the coffin had remained intact long enough for the individual within to become fully skeletal. As the coffin was yet to collapse and become filled with backfill, it was possible for the movement of the bones to take place – a curious piece of taphonomy (post-depositional change).
As well as being a natural troweller, Keith’s planning also proved to be immaculate!
Elsewhere on site, Jan was also making his archaeological debut. His first feature was a tile, brick and stone hearth that we had begun to dismantle in the spring.
Built in the 18th century, the structure had long been thought to be a simple hearth within a post-medieval workshop, however, as Jan lifted the masonry around the edge of the feature, he discovered that the structure was built over a more substantial footing than had been anticipated.
This development suggested that a larger superstructure would have been present around the tile hearth base. The plot had thickened! We were now looking at something more akin to an oven as opposed to a simple fireplace.
When considered alongside contemporary pits filled with butchery waste, Jan’s discovery provides possible evidence for food processing in the decades before the site became a graveyard. A useful new piece to our puzzle.
Jenny and Kathryn spent their weekend investigating a deposit that was thought to pre-date the use of the graveyard. Following the creation of a detailed record, the pair picked up trowels and set to work.
The deposit yielded a huge range of ceramics, ranging from early 19th century in date, right back to the Roman period! The finds highlight was undoubtedly Jenny’s fragment of a Roman colour coat cup from the Nene Valley.
These fineware vessels were a cheaper alternative to expensive metal vessels and occur in huge quantity in Roman York. It seems our Roman predecessors were rather fond of fine wines! Finds like these provide wonderful insights into creature comforts from the dawn of the second millennium.
Tucked away at the very edge of the trench, Lyn and Chris carried on with the excavation of another 19th century burial. This required some surgical trowel work in cramped conditions, a task that this formidable duo were more than up to!
As the weekend drew to a close, it was this feature that provided our final surprise. Lyn and Chris’ steady troweling had revealed an infant burial that seemed to lay directly over the top of an underlying juvenile. This made it quite the challenge to differentiate which remains related to which individual without great care.
While multiple burials within family plots has been a regular feature within the 19th century burial ground, we had found no evidence of any grave goods up to this point. As the deposition of objects within burials is not part of Christian burial custom, the lack of any grave goods thus far had been of little surprise.
Close to the end of the day, however, Lyn and Chris noticed a green copper alloy object amongst the finger bones of their inhumation. Closer inspection revealed that the infant had been buried holding a coin in its left hand – a touching and highly evocative find.
As the corrosion of the coin had inhibited decay, fragments of fabric were still preserved on its surface, a remarkable quirk of preservation! Although it would be fascinating to investigate the coin further, it will stay with the remains of the infant and be re-buried within the church. The graves are tightly dated to between 1826 and 1854 and in this case there is need for any further research; it is far more important that the infant is re-interred in exactly the same way it had originally been laid to rest by its grieving parents.
Artefacts like these have the power to bring the past to life in a stark and often unsettling light, bringing us closer to the deeds and emotions of the people that lived through the times we study. Lyn and Chris’ discovery of this coin in a way allowed the team to act as very late guests to a funeral, witnessing a simple human act of grief and kindness that never made its way into the history books. Working with human remains can be a privilege and our trainees at All Saints have shown an admirable level of care and respect at all times.
The weekend drew to a close with a wrap-up of our latest discoveries and a welcome trip to a nearby pub where the team could discuss their findings. The April weekend team achieved a remarkable amount in just two days, unearthing evidence of Roman luxuries and 19th century tragedy along the way. Now the site was left to rest, that is, until the May weekend team arrived…
With the May weekend falling on a Bank Holiday, we obviously expected rain. Happily, the day began with overcast but dry conditions. In the few weeks we’d been away, it was remarkable how many weeds had sprung up! The new team got their eye in by having a little tidy around the trench.
With the site looking a little cleaner, it was soon time for the team to tackle some new contexts. Sarah and Georgia set to work on a small dump of material that has survived in a gap between a pair of graves. The deposit seemed to be the uppermost in a sequence of broadly contemporary dumps and it took a little investigative troweling to spot where this dump ended and another began.
After a short while, Georgia and Sarah had defined the outline of their context and were then able to make a detailed record of the context prior to excavation.
Not far away, Gill and Julie were setting about a similar task, although the deposit they were investigating was suspected to overlie further 19th century burials.
By the end of the weekend, both deposits had been thoroughly probed and several finds trays were now overflowing with finds. No new graves were uncovered, but our suspicions were still roused…
Dave and Tracey also spent a weekend investigating a slither of archaeology between two rows of graves. In a piece of archaeology no wider than 200mm, the pair discovered a number of dumps cut by a pit – all of which appeared to be a good deal older than our burials.
Datable finds began to emerge and Tracey and Dave were able to confirm that they had left the 19th century behind and discovered post-medieval archaeology. The sequence suggested that the space was likely to have been a yard in the late 1700s, with occasional pits and levelling dumps.
The finds highlight once again was an elegantly decorated fragment of a Roman Colour Coat cup, further evidence of Roman luxury at All Saints!
Theo and Stuart took over the excavation of an unusual feature that we started to excavate way back in 2014. Ominously dubbed ‘The Horn Core Pit’, the feature has already yielded thousands of fragments of cattle skull and horn core.
This is interesting evidence of the craft and industrial activity that was taking place around All Saints prior to the site becoming a graveyard in 1862. Horn core, the brittle, bony interior of a cow’s horn, is a by-product of the horn working industry. The sheer volume of waste deposited suggests that many a horn object will have been manufactured on Church Lane in the 18th century.
True to form, the pit continued to produce a huge amount of horn working detritus, alongside an assemblage of late 18th and early 19th century ceramics. The only thing that Theo and Stuart failed to locate was the base of the feature; by the end of the weekend, it was still descending ever deeper. This one would need more work in the summer!
In just two days, the May weekend team found (and cleaned) hundreds of new finds. New detail was unearthed regarding the little understood post-medieval and Georgian history of the site and it didn’t even rain!
With the weekend wrapped up, the team retreated to the cosy confines of the pub to reflect on a job well done. The site was now primed and ready for a full 12 weeks of archaeology, but that’s another story…
Thanks to all of the spring weekend(s) team for their excellent company and excavation work.
In the coming posts, I’ll endeavour to tell the tale of the summer 2016 excavation. It was a hectic season of exciting and often unexpected discoveries, watch this space for updates…
Onwards and downwards!